The Blair Witch Project (1999) might have made millions and become a milestone in the history of cinema, but it didn’t inspire a great many films worth watching. Although spoofs and knock-offs proliferated quickly, it wasn’t until the rise of reality TV and cheap, readily available digital cameras that the format started producing interesting results, including [Rec] (2007) and its sequels (and to a lesser extent the US remake), George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead (2007), Cloverfield (2008), the Paranormal Activity films, and most recently André Øvredal’s Troll Hunter (2010). Released in 2005, Kôji Shiraishi’s The Curse (Noroi) predates all these, but strictly speaking it does not belong with the ‘found footage’ films. Instead, it’s the conceptual descendant of the BBC’s notorious 1992 Ghostwatch Halloween Special, in which another trashy ‘celebrity in a haunted house’ TV show began documenting real phenomena, both on location and in the studio. With millions of viewers convinced they were watching a live television broadcast, Ghostwatch attracted acclaim and outrage in equal proportion when the deception was finally revealed. The Curse is presented as the final work of Masafumi Kobayashi (Jin Muraki), a reporter and filmmaker who specialises in documenting - rather than debunking - supernatural and occult phenomena. After finishing his latest investigation, Kobayashi disappeared and his wife died, leaving behind only the almost finished documentary and a few minutes of unseen footage - apparently shot on the night he disappeared - as a possible clue.
Kobayashi’s documentary begins with the disappearance of a possibly unhinged single mother and her introverted young son, but before long he is drawn into a world of psychic children, alien religious rituals, gruesome sacrifices, a surplus of dead pigeons, an insane visionary clad in a tin foil hat and coat, and the root cause of it all, a town that now sits at the bottom of an artificial lake. Most of the footage is shot by Kobayashi and his unseen cameraman, but the narrative is also supported by extracts from the television news and a number of clips drawn from TV shows that introduce key characters and highlight their connections to the world of the supernatural. After Kobayashi, the most important character is actress and part-time psychic Marika Matsumoto, star of Takashi Shimizu’s Reincarnation (Rinne, 2005), and one of several guests playing themselves. Following a trip to a supposedly haunted shrine as part of a TV show, Marika finds herself becoming the focus of a steadily escalating series of supernatural events, including half-glimpsed figures on the TV footage, bizarre sleepwalking incidents and a growing number of pigeons that commit suicide by hurling themselves against her windows. As she grows increasingly frightened, Kobayashi realises there is a connection between the story he is pursuing and Marika’s otherworldly experiences.
As in a great deal of contemporary Japanese horror, much of the material in The Curse reflects the Japanese fascination with all things mysterious and unexplainable, from the occult to urban legends. The fake TV show clips that Shiraishi uses to add authenticity work mainly because they’re exceptionally realistic. Shows that test the psychic abilities of a class of schoolchildren have been seen on Japanese television, complete with tacky graphics and multi-coloured subtitles. Rising starlets like Marika Matsumoto - and Maria Takagi, who also appears - often end up as panel guests or celebrity interviewers. They might only be on screen for seconds, but you can also spot noted horror author Hiroshi Aramata, popular TV host and former AV star Ai Iijima and comedy duo The Ungirls. Wisely, Shiraishi avoids allowing these cameo appearances to dominate their scenes and distract from the main characters and the supernatural events.
Shiraishi’s approach has a definite advantage over Blair Witch-style ‘found footage’; by presenting his footage as part of a documentary, the director is free to edit, manipulate and process the material as much as he likes, in order to achieve the necessary effect. This is most apparent in the disembodied, multi-layered baby cries that can frequently be heard, as well as the muted thuds of pigeons hitting windows. Digital manipulation allows Shiraishi to insert the briefly seen ghostly figures and twisted faces that appear throughout the film. However, these are not the half-glimpsed phantoms found in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse (Kairo, 2001); because The Curse is supposed to be a documentary, when such images or phenomena are caught on film the footage is sometimes replayed and analysed, reducing its impact on the viewer. Despite this, Shiraishi leaves a great deal unexplained - the pigeons, for example, or the knots - and simply allows the cumulative effect of all the horror and grotesquery to speak for itself. There’s no need for him to explicitly describe the rituals taking place since the implications are clear and the viewer’s imagination can fill in the less-than-pleasant details.
The same applies to the film’s final sequence, which is presented in full with no edits, overdubs or modifications. Without the director’s own commentary it isn’t completely clear what happens in the minutes prior to Kobayashi’s disappearance and the death of his wife, but this ambiguous conclusion is entirely appropriate for a film that documents a wealth of supernatural phenomena without managing to explain any of them. There is a slight misstep before the end, however. Like almost every found-footage film, there comes a time when one character ignores his own safety (and that of his companions) to pick up the camera and start filming. Realistically, such individuals would either run or assist their friends; preserving the event for posterity would probably not rank highly on most people’s list of priorities, selfish or otherwise. That minor glitch aside, The Curse is one of the best of its kind, competing easily with The Blair Witch Project and The Last Broadcast (1998) and considerably better than Cloverfield or the Paranormal Activity series, including the made-in-Japan alternate sequel Paranormal Activity 2: Tokyo Night (2010). Unlike Tokyo Night, The Curse is a terrific example of the kind of atmospheric, well-composed horror films that Japan became famous for in the wake of Hideo Nakata’s Ring (1998).
Director Kôji Shiraishi has been an active figure in the world of low-budget Japanese horror since the early 2000s. He cut his teeth on the prolonged V-cinema (direct-to-video) Hontô ni atta! Noroi no bideo series before contributing to a clip show called Nihon no kowai yoru, released in the West as Dark Tales of Japan. This made-for-TV anthology project gave Shiraishi the opportunity to work alongside some of Japan’s most famous horror directors and with Takashige Ichise, the driving force behind Ring (1998) and the Ju-on series, who went on to produce The Curse. Although widely considered to be the director’s best work, it has yet to be released in Western countries, despite the continued interest in atmospheric Japanese horror. Shiraishi would visit the same genre territory again a number of times, including in Shirome (2010), which features real pop group Momoiro Clover exploring fake sites of supernatural interest, and the serial killer investigation Occult (2009). Neither has been released in an English-language version yet. Recently Shiraishi’s career has been overshadowed by the controversy surrounding his notorious ‘torture-porn’ effort Grotesque (2009), which was refused a certificate from the BBFC, effectively banning its release or screening in the United Kingdom.